As same sex marriages became legal in England and Wales this weekend, it is worth celebrating not only the progressive merit of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, but also the fact that the opposition to the legislation has been so muted and looks so out of touch. According to a BBC Radio 5 live poll, 22% of British adults would still apparently refuse to attend a same sex wedding, so ingrained prejudice clearly dies hard. Yet in contrast to the situation in the USA, there is no conservative lobby or interest ready to mobilise those who remain uncomfortable with the change. The Church of England has rolled over in time-honoured fashion to the will of Parliament. Even UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, the most likely political figure to support the views of matrimonial traditionalists, has dodged the issue. Public opponents of same sex unions may not all be cranks who think recent floods were a condign punishment from the Almighty for undermining the holy institution of matrimony, but they do look reassuringly marginal and out of touch.
We should remember, however, that the arguments that until relatively recently justified the position that marriage could only happen between a man and a woman, are not ancient. While they are based in part on interpretations of the Bible, which is notoriously inconsistent on matters of sex, they certainly do not derive from any words of Jesus Christ. In fact they were largely developed in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries to suppress unions, mostly between men, that medieval church and society had not only tolerated but also legalised and celebrated for hundreds of years.
Same-sex unions between men, often called affrèrements or “brotherments”, were not uncommon in Europe in the Middle Ages. Celebrated in church, many of the elements were the same as those found in descriptions of heterosexual marriages. Hands would be placed on the Bible, there would be lighting of candles, the binding of hands, and a kiss to make the ceremony official1. Many of these ceremonies undoubtedly celebrated relationships that were based on family, friendship, religious faith, shared property interests and the like, but others were evidently emotional and sexual unions. Attempts to dismiss this latter element of brotherment as gay revisionism are unconvincing, and demonstrate that historians can be as prone to homophobia as any other group. In medieval Europe, as in many societies throughout human history, same sex preference may not have been the norm, but neither was it always treated as unusual or taboo. Men, including members of monastic orders and the priesthood, formed committed intimate unions and these were sanctioned by the church and celebrated by communities. Women probably did the same, but given their lower social status their unions were recognised in a less formal way that is not reflected in the records.
This relative tolerance began to shift in the twelfth century. The threat to Christian Europe from the Arab Muslim powers to the south and east of the Mediterranean not only led to the Crusades, but also initiated the hunt for scapegoats within Christian Europe, a trend that was exacerbated by the arrival of plague pandemics in the fourteenth century. Jewish minorities were the first to suffer as medieval Church and state began to strengthen their hold on society and root out those whose race, religious beliefs and sexual practices made them “other” in the eyes of the new, more rigid orthodoxy.
It is from this period of pogroms and persecutions that the basic arguments put forward by the opponents of same sex marriage originate. Drawing selectively on the Bible, but mostly from conservative writers of the early church, medieval theologians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, preached that marriage was for the sole purpose of creating children, and therefore should only exist between a man and a woman2. God created the human race in a precise sequence, first the man, then the woman, establishing the archetype of all legitimate human sexual and familial relations. Male and female were uniquely complementary in the eyes of God, and only sexual intercourse for procreation was natural.
These patriarchal arguments were used both to suppress and persecute same sex unions and sexual relations throughout Europe. In most jurisdictions, homosexual acts became punishable by death. By the sixteenth century it would have been impossible for two men, let alone two women, to contemplate a marriage union or for their community to sanction it. Same sex relationships went underground. Even as social change and activism rolled back restrictions against homosexual activity in the late twentieth century, the notion that marriage can only occur between male and female remained strong, particularly in the USA. As late as 1996 President Clinton signed into law the Defense of Marriage Act, which states that “the word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife”3. The Roman Catholic Church continued to hold the traditional line. In 1999 Pope John Paul II declared that marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman, was “incongruous” because of “the absence of the conditions for that interpersonal complementarity between male and female willed by the Creator at both the physical-biological and the eminently psychological levels”4. In the UK, the same arguments about what is “natural” in terms of relationships underpinned the Thatcher government’s passage of Section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act that forbade promoting the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as “a pretended family relationship”.
Given this history it is reassuring that the advent of same sex marriage in England and Wales this weekend has been met with so little resistance and protest from social conservatives. The idea that marriage is only for men and women still gets trotted out, but its hold on society increasingly appears more a matter of ignorance, habit and intellectual laziness than reasoned argument. Some faith communities continue to stick to it, but even the Roman Catholic Church has begun to modify its position. Pope Francis has stated that the church should study same sex unions rather than condemn them. We have certainly come a long way in the last twenty-five years in our attitudes to same sex preference and sexual activity. So whenever you hear someone pushing the idea that marriage is a male-female preserve, it is worth reminding yourself, and them if need be, that its origins are in the bigotry of the Middle Ages and that is where it should be left.
- Boswell, J. The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York: Villard, 1994)
- Reid, C.J. May a Man Marry a Man? Medieval Canon Lawyers Analyze Same-Sex Unions, (Legal Studies Research Paper No. 14-02. University of St. Thomas, Minnesota, School of Law, 2014)
- Berkowitz, E. Sex and Punishment. 4000 Years of Judging Desire (London: Westbourne Press, 2012)
- Address of Pope John Paul II to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, 21 January, 1999.